By Sean Nelson, The Stranger, 31 August 2000
The Posies are back again (again). Having survived 13 years of innumerable incarnations, demises, and reunions, the venerable Northwest pop-rock project has re-arisen, stripped to its essentials: Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, a couple of acoustic guitars, two beautiful voices, and a body of songs that has never sounded better.
Presumably, the re-reunion was inspired by the wealth of new and old Posies material now being made available, including a best-of compilation drawn from their major-label records (Dream All Day, Geffen), a four-CD box of B-sides and rarities (At Least At Last, Not Lame Records), and two live albums–a ’98 rock show from Spain (Alive Before the Iceberg, Houston Party Records), and an acoustic show recorded at the Showbox in February (In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, Casa Recording Co.). This trove of posthumous releases has an air of vindication about it, an affirmation that a band can go through the wringer of major-label affiliation and emerge victorious.
Whatever their reasons, however, the fact that Auer and Stringfellow are still playing together affords fans and band alike a chance to regard the rich tableau of the Posies’ tumultuous history–not exactly a going concern, but hardly a museum piece, either. Theirs is a living, breathing history; a close partnership that has weathered years of conflict, confusion, failure, and success, and lives not only to tell the tale, but to sing it in complex harmony to a legion of fierce devotees.
If the proliferation of Behind the Music and its imitators has proven anything, it’s that every band has a story (and that most, in fact, have the same story). Bands that become legendary have something more. Rock mythology swells with examples of musical partnerships forged by two friends in a bedroom, in a classroom, in the garage, on the streets of a small town. Whether the mythos reflects reality is beside the point; fan stands for fantasy. You need only invoke first names: John and Paul, Kurt and Krist, Ray and Dave, Corin and Carrie…. On that incomplete list of duos, the humble Bellingham beginnings of Jon and Ken stand as a corollary to a beautiful tradition: the one that makes a band more than just the music they play; the one that makes you love them.
To a listener, even one who came late (as I did), that tradition is a plumb line through everything the Posies have ever done. It’s a kind of promise (again, maybe a fantasy, but one you can take to the bank) that whatever else happens, the essence of the band remains two guys with two guitars, burning with desire to say something true. Because they’re the Posies, that truth sounds beautiful. But because they’re also friends who have publicly withstood a disorienting career together, that beauty can be lacerating.
Two-thirds of the way through In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, during the tuning break between “I May Hate You Sometimes (But I’ll Always Love You)” and “Please Return It,” Jon Auer casually tells the crowd that he “kinda wrote that song” about Ken, and that “he kinda wrote this one about me…. So we’re a couple of sick fucks.” Looking back over the five “official” Posies records, especially Amazing Disgrace, one is struck by the number of songs they wrote about one another. Of course, there are plenty of excellent Posies songs about girls, books, bands, labels, the road, household appliances, and what have you. But numbers like “Hate Song,” “Song 1,” and those mentioned above spill over with the kind of hatred only true friends can feel (“I’m writing you a hate song, I don’t wanna have to hold your hand”); the kind of insights only those who know you best can see (“You can paint it black/You can use thickest shellac/And still be seen through”). Over the course of five records, such songs constitute a bitter set of back-and-forth volleys between two intimates; cryptic, maybe, but unmistakably personal.
Despite the brutal candor, though, one is struck harder by the love that underlines the bile, both in the lyrics (“In the certainty of friendships, you can ask”) and, crucially, in the pair’s trademark vocal harmonies. They sing these songs about and at each other, but with each other, too. It’s the very picture of honesty, and of generosity–friends who have seen one another at their worst, who are close enough to call each other out, and who respect each other enough to listen.
Emotional explication and relationship dissection have always been the province of pop songwriters. What distinguishes the Posies from their contemporaries–from their heroes, even–is that even at their craftiest or most confessional, they have the overarching conscience and courage to admit that no matter how strong a feeling is, what matters more is trying to understand it. The truthful examination of a complicated situation is always more important than easy blame, maudlin sentimentality, or a catchy hook (though they’ve got millions of those). Communication trumps expression. It’s not just honesty, it’s uncomfortable honesty, demanding that everyone be accountable: listener, singer, and subject alike.
Which brings us to August 2, the night of the most recent–it’s never safe to say “last”–Posies show in Seattle. Over the past three years, and possibly longer, every local Posies show has been attended by speculation that it might be the final one. I’ve seen at least three that seemed like they’d have to be (and weren’t), most notably the Bumbershoot appearance that culminated in Auer and Stringfellow lofting their guitars into the crowd as the set crashed to a close. They’ve both said, too, that the rock-band chapter of the band’s storybook is pretty much over. But if these acoustic shows are a kind of epilogue in which the songwriters put aside their old misgivings and look back, it certainly doesn’t feel like the end of anything. In the stripped-down setting, the emotionality of the largely somber set list was all the more central, the feelings all the more rawboned for the lack of noise to hide behind, and the playing all the more impressive for being so naked.
As the night went on, the duo appeared to remember something that years of being in a tense collaboration had fogged over: the transcendent pleasure of doing it. It was astounding to witness, like getting to watch the first two weeks of a love affair. The intricate vocal harmonies became positively acrobatic as the singers cut loose, performing as much for one another as for the crowd, which was in complete thrall to the spectacle of its beloved Posies pulling the best from one another.
The specter of “success” hounds bands that sign to major labels, which are not in the business of selling records, but of selling millions of records (killing bands is just a sideline). Success can confound reason, invent adversity, and generally tear asunder what was joined in the first place. The Posies entered that machine on a wave of good fortune, were tossed around by it, made some great records, and eventually got spit out. It almost destroyed them, as it does so many fine bands who exit the process poisoned, craving revenge. But the Posies lived–outlasting the trend-ravaged ’90s and even their old label–a little different than they thought, but not one drop less righteous. Because the heart of what they do is tell the truth about what they feel and see, the only thing that could have killed them was them. No industry can thwart honesty.
Though both Jon and Ken have other stuff going on and long since moved beyond just being Posies, it seems they’ve now reached the point of being happy about always being Posies, too. They’re a true partnership, and trusting in that was the key to staying together. And staying together is the best revenge of all.